UK academe fights to retain young stars

February 16, 2007

Some 9,000 young researchers leave their universities each year. Only 10 per cent of those go to other UK institutions. Is the sector failing to offer the right support or are conditions elsewhere just too tempting? Olga Wojtas finds out.

Raffaele De Nicola recently won a prestigious European award for research excellence. But the biotechnologist from Abertay Dundee University has just moved into industry because he believes working as a postdoc is incompatible with family life.

Dr De Nicola, who is originally from Italy, collected his PhD from Abertay this summer for research into ways of optimising beer fermentation. He was awarded a European doctorate in biotechnology, given by the European Association for Higher Education in Biotechnology for excellence in research carried out in two or more European countries and in at least two languages.

He first came to Abertay when he was studying for his undergraduate degree at the University of Perugia, because the facilities in Scotland were better suited to his specialism. He then went into industry for three years, but decided to return to Abertay to boost his qualifications.

His MPhil was funded by the European Social Fund. "It was a very good feeling. I was happy both about life (in Scotland) and the type of research," he said.

He is arguably exactly the sort of talented young researcher UK higher education needs. But he is not alone in leaving the sector. Higher Education Statistics Agency figures for 2004-05 show that more than 9,000 researchers leave their post each year, with fewer than 1,000 moving to another UK institution. About the same number goes overseas, fewer than 400 to universities. Almost 600 go into UK industry.

But the Hesa figures also show that there is a revolving door when it comes to postdoc numbers. In 2004-05, more than 800 researchers came into higher education from UK industry, and almost 1,800 came from overseas. But a high turnover in any profession risks losing the best people.

Dr De Nicola, aged 33 and married with a small daughter, felt forced to rule out an academic career in the immediate future because of the dearth of jobs in fermentation technology, and uncertainty over the early stages.

"I would have to spend one or two years as a postdoc in Scotland and then maybe go to London, and after several postdocs (I would hope) to get something more secure," he said. "I like the place, but I'm getting too old to move around. Maybe if I was 26 or and not married I would have done it. It was mostly tactical to move into industry. It would have been nice to remain in academia if things had been easier."

Anne Forde, a Cambridge University careers adviser dedicated to postdocs, said: "Research Councils UK estimates that only 10 per cent of PhDs end up in a permanent position. While that would be a higher proportion among postdocs, it is still a minority. We want to keep talent in higher education, but we have an open mind and also want to help people to explore other options."

But Chris Park, senior associate in the Higher Education Academy and Graduate School director at Lancaster University, said: "Now, with much more skills training of research students, it opens up a wider range of career options. What I don't think we're seeing is a downturn in students who want academic jobs."

The flexibility and fascination of higher education research was a major draw, he said, but there were also intense pressures. "It's much more competitive. People are expected to be performing to research assessment exercise standards from day one, and the transition from research student to junior academic is abrupt."

He believes that institutions are now all taking very seriously the need to nurture the research stars of the future. "But some are better than others," he said.

Iain Cameron, head of the Research Careers and Diversity Unit, said:

"Universities have reported back to us that they are going to do more for postdocs this year. We're on the brink of really moving forward."

Janet Metcalfe, director of UK Grad, said: "Universities are making efforts to support early-career researchers but more can be done. They are a neglected cohort."

Last month, Dr De Nicola started a new job in Switzerland as a fermentation scientist for DSM Nutritional Products, part of a multinational business.

He said: "At the moment, I'm happy about moving to the company, but I want to leave doors open."

Once he gains industrial experience, he hopes to have the chance to publish some papers, making it more feasible for him to return to higher education.

John Bothwell, a postdoc at the Marine Biological Association in Plymouth and a founder of the National Research Staff Association, said there was a dearth of information on postdoc career destinations. Figures suggest that the numbers getting permanent posts varied between 5 and 25 per cent, depending on discipline, he said.

"My guess would be the number is going to fall, unless changes are made to the way science in the UK is organised," he said.

The association's wiki, http:/// , says principal investigators are often rewarded for treating their research staff as temporary technicians, rather than independent researchers.

'I'd find it limiting to work in industry'

Gail McConnell counts herself as one of the fortunate few when it comes to her postdoctoral research career.

In 2001, Dr McConnell was set to enter a well-paid job in industry after completing her PhD in laser physics. But the company was hit when the dotcom bubble burst, and the job offer was withdrawn.

Strathclyde University, where Dr McConnell had done her undergraduate and postgraduate degrees, came to the rescue. A postdoc had left three months early, and Dr McConnell was offered a position working with the university's physics department and its Centre for Biophotonics.

She has been at Strathclyde ever since. She admits that this is unusual among her peers, most of whom move between institutions. "I'd describe myself as extremely fortunate since getting my PhD, both in terms of having fellowships and ongoing funding," she said.

"Others are not so fortunate, and it can be difficult. You may be six months from the end of a two-year contract and it can be quite demoralising if you don't know where your next job is going to be. That reduces your productivity."

Dr McConnell said that senior researchers supported her career development, backed by practical seminars from Strathclyde's Centre for Academic Practice on subjects such as applying for your first grant and writing a research proposal.

"There was always somebody I could speak to, from people slightly senior to me to the director of the centre. It was very informal, just 'I need to know about this, do you know?'"

Allister Ferguson, Dr McConnell's former PhD supervisor, was applying for Research Councils UK fellowships and urged his former charge to bid for one of them.

Dr McConnell was successful, and the five-year fellowship now puts her on the academic career track, guaranteeing her a permanent post when it ends in 2010.

As for that missed career in industry, Dr McConnell said: "I'd now find it difficult to work in industry. I would find it limiting. Here, I get to work on something that interests me, rather than on trying to generate profits for the company."

Olga Wojtas

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